Marc Andre-Fleury @29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins makes a save against the Washington Capitals in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG Paints Arena on May 3, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
Lucky for Matt Niskanen, the Washington Capitals defenseman isn't active on social media.
Only then would he know that Penguins fans wanted his flesh and blood as payback for his cross-check on Sidney Crosby.
Niskanen was nervous after being cast as the villain for knocking the Penguins captain out indefinitely with a concussion in what is the defining play of this Eastern Conference semifinal series.
The Penguins had other ideas for retribution Wednesday night in Game 4. While the PPG Paints Arena crowd booed lustily every time Niskanen touched the puck, players such as Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz got into his head early and took Niskanen out of his game.
The Capitals, however, had no answer for Marc-Andre Fleury. The Penguins goaltender has become impenetrable, whether it's protecting the net or his mindset.
Fleury stopped 36 of 38 shots in the 3-2 victory before a sellout, standing-room-only crowd and has emerged as the shining star on a team suddenly in need of one.
“I think Marc has played extremely well for us,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “He's a competitive guy. He's a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender, and I think he's showing it.”
Turns out, the Penguins didn't need to seek revenge on Niskanen, who drew a game misconduct for his hit on Crosby but avoided any further punishment from the NHL. Niskanen was tentative and ineffective, and it was reflective of his Capitals teammates, who had six penalties and went 0 for 5 on the power play.
“Your goaltender is usually your best penalty killer,” Sullivan said. “They make that timely save for you. Marc did that all night long, not just on our penalty kill but five-on-five, as well.”
Where Washington won Game 3 with what was debated as a dirty play, the Penguins won Game 4 with their play in the dirty areas. They fought for pucks along the boards. They gave up their bodies to block 24 shots, compared to the Capitals' 11, and won the battle of hits (40-30).
“He's been our No. 1 star all playoffs,” said Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz, who scored the winner on a power-play goal at 11 minutes, 24 seconds of the second period. “It seems every other night we're saying how good he was. Again, he kept us in it in the second when they were coming. He has a lot of fun back there, and he loves the moment and it's fun playing for him.”
Afterward, Capitals coach Barry Trotz lamented his star players didn't do enough but credited Fleury for another fine performance. In these four games against the Capitals, who feature one of this generation's great goal scorers in Alex Ovechkin, Fleury has stopped 133 of 142 shots, a .937 save percentage.
“Marc has elevated his game at an important time of the season,” Sullivan said, “and I think it's the highest compliment you can give a player.”
Trotz said the Penguins have the edge in pedigree as reigning Stanley Cup champions. The Capitals have only the President's Trophy, awarded to the NHL's best regular-season team. The Penguins take a 3-1 series lead to Game 5 on Saturday at Verizon Center with a chance to clinch.
“You've just got to mentally fight through it,” Trotz said. “That's the part we have to wrap around our minds. One of the things in playoff hockey is you have to earn the right to play. That's not a given.
“The Pittsburgh Penguins have played without a number of players all year, and you were going to get their best game and we needed our best game to beat them. We had a lot of zone time. We had a lot of chances. Fleury was a big player. We had some good chances. We didn't bury them. We're sitting here now, down 3-1.”
Fleury acknowledged the Capitals have tried to get into his head, once considered the most fragile part of his game to the point that he sought counsel from a sports psychologist after one playoff failure. From crashing the crease to setting screens in front of the net, nothing has rattled the 32-year-old netminder this postseason.
The Capitals continue to take shots, and Fleury continues to stop them.
“I don't know,” Fleury said. “I don't worry too much about what they're thinking. I just want to stop the next one.”